LOWELL — The commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education and a leading pediatrician from Children’s Hospital cited concerns about mental health and the achievement gap as they told U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan that in-person education is generally preferable to remote learning despite the pandemic, as long as community-level data continues to show that it can be done safely.
Commissioner Jeffrey Riley — a former special educator and principal of Tyngsboro Middle School — told Trahan that Johns Hopkins University includes Massachusetts on a list of states with COVID-19 transmission rates low enough to enable schools to reopen safely. But Riley said those transmission rates still vary by community, and should be considered on that level.
Riley and Dr. Louis Vernacchio, chief medical officer for the Pediatric Physicians’ Organization at Boston Children’s Hospital and a practicing pediatrician, spoke with Trahan on Zoom to answer the five questions most frequently submitted to Trahan by residents of her 3rd Congressional District.
Vernacchio, who helps oversee the roughly 80 pediatrician’s offices around the state with ties to Children’s, opened his remarks by stressing that, if it can be done safely, in-person, classroom education is superior to remote learning for a variety of reasons, some of which go beyond just education.
He said in-person schooling also provides important social interaction for students, as well as connections to services such as speech therapy, free lunches, and emotional and special education support that may not be available at home.
“Generally my presumption, and the presumption of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is that kids, for the most part, are better off in school, and that as long as we’re in a place where we can do that safely, then we should encourage kids to get back to school,” Vernacchio said.
But Vernacchio said that presumption must be balanced against the personal circumstances of each family — for instance whether the student lives with someone especially vulnerable, such as a grandparent — and the circumstances in each community.
“Sometimes the home environment is supportive for education, and sometimes it’s not, and that may be due to circumstances beyond the parents’ control,” he said, mentioning parents who are essential workers. “When kids are not in school there’s a risk of real disparities in the educational process for kids who are in more privileged circumstances versus those who are not.”
Both Vernacchio and Riley said they shared concerns raised by a question about the dangers of childhood depression and anxiety among students who remain out of school. Riley said the state is working on the issue aggressively and has released guidance to schools.
“We have therapists working at most of our primary care sites and I can tell you they’re extremely busy working with kids who are struggling with not seeing friends,” Vernacchio said.
Asked what is being done to keep the achievement gap from increasing, Riley said the state Legislature agreeing to level-fund schools and two large federal grants — of $194 million and $202 million — have helped. He said the state funds maintain services and the federal grants are paying for needed new technology and extra help for districts with the most challenges.
“Whatever we do we think the federal government is going to have to help us more in the coming days,” Riley told Trahan. “My pitch to you is that we really need that additional support particularly in our most needy communities, not just to keep gaps from widening, but just to get through this.”
And Vernacchio said kids being out of school can widen far more than just educational achievement gaps, citing food, access to attentive environments, and even citing one study that showed an increase in lead exposure among some kids who now spend more time at home instead of in certified lead-free schools.
“Unfortunately this pandemic has exposed disparities in our societies in many ways,” he said. “It’s really exposing some of those societal problems we have, so I think we should do everything we can to bridge those gaps and to get our kids into school if at all possible.”
He credited Massachusetts with using a data-driven approach to the situation, and said continuing to do so will be important.
Riley said DESE set up a color-coded system with recommendations on what individual communities should consider based community-level transmission rates, as well as recommendations on remote, hybrid, and in-person models.
“If your transmission rate is greater than 8 per 100,000, you should probably consider the remote option,” he said.
In response to a question submitted by a parent in Lowell, Riley said decisions on whether to close schools if outbreaks occur will likely be made on the local level, unless the outbreaks spread.
Vernacchio said part of his job with Children’s is to ensure the hospital’s roughly 80 practices around the state can stay open safely, which they have, and that many businesses have safely reopened as well.
“It all comes down to using the data and following procedures,” he said. “I think schools can do the same thing if we rely on this data-driven approach.”
To view a recording of the full conversation on Trahan’s Facebook page, click here.